IN THE ART WORLD, there is such a thing as being too popular. It happened to the Impressionists, and it certainly happened to Surrealist René Magritte (1898–1967). Even if you don’t remember his name, you’d probably recognize his work. Magritte’s 1964 “Le fils de l’homme” (“Son of Man”), depicting a man in a bowler hat with an apple floating in front of his face, has made it onto calendars, coffee mugs, and dorm room posters, in addition to influencing advertising and film.
When an artist’s work is widely reproduced or mimicked, the power of the original can become diluted. It’s like the magic dissipates. But two new shows opening February 14 at the Menil Collection, Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938 and Memories of a Voyage: The Late Work of René Magritte, may well bring back the magic, reminding us of the artist’s extraordinary talent and ingenuity.
Mystery of the Ordinary opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York last September and was jointly organized by MOMA, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Menil Collection, which has the largest collection of Magritte’s works outside his home country, Belgium (the de Menils were early champions of the artist). The exhibition brings together works produced by Magritte during the years leading up to World War II.
Menil director Josef Helfenstein is a co-curator of Mystery of the Ordinary. He explains that Magritte’s ability to “play with the familiar” is what perhaps fascinates people the most about the artist. “Magritte succeeds in getting you into this trap where the familiar is not familiar at all.”
A woman’s flesh slowly morphs into wood grain. Locks of wavy hair grow from a pair of shoes. An eye stares from the center of a slice of ham on a plate.
Magritte’s gift for uncanny juxtapositions that turn the ordinary into the bizarre is well represented in the exhibition. A woman’s flesh slowly morphs into wood grain. Locks of wavy hair grow from a pair of shoes. An eye stares from the center of a slice of ham on a plate. In one of the latest works in the show, a steam engine thunders out of a living room fireplace, shattering the domestic quiet. The 1938 image evokes the horrors of Nazism—it was painted the same year as the Anschluss and Kristallnacht.
In the artist’s word paintings, says Helfenstein, Magritte “undoes the convention of both seeing as well as speaking; he combines both in a way that you don’t believe in either one.” The exhibition includes the classic 1928–29 work “La trahison des images” (“The Treachery of Images”), Magritte’s painting of a pipe with the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”) written below it. It’s an early exploration of language and representation—after all, a picture of a pipe really isn’t a pipe. This pairing of text and image was innovative at the time, and his sardonic use of schoolbook-style images and script feels incredibly modern almost 90 years later. The exhibition, which features approximately 80 works, includes many lesser-known but equally intriguing pairings of text and image.
Memories of a Voyage is a small exhibition of a dozen or so works organized by the Menil. It augments the larger show with a sampling of the artist’s later works. In the painting “The Dominion of Light” (1953–54), which is owned by the Menil, the sky is bright blue and strewn with white, fluffy clouds, while on the ground, dark silhouettes of trees frame a lone street lamp in front of a shuttered house. It is night in the world in this work, painted as the artist entered his final years—Magritte died in 1967.
Houstonians have the rare opportunity not only to see an amazing selection of Magritte’s paintings but to view work from the beginning of his career all the way through the end of his life.